Piecing together the lives of women caught up in the white slave trade
Author: Womens UN Report Network
Date: October 6, 2015
In the Life
Piecing together the lives of women caught up in the white slave trade
Interview by Sara Ivry
Nextbook: A Gateway to
Jewish Literature, Culture, and Ideas
Today, reports abound about
women from Nigeria, Thailand, or Albania working as prostitutes abroad. But
international sex-trafficking is nothing new. Between 1860 and 1940, Jews were
ensnared in what was known as the “white slave trade.” A network of pimps and
conmen lured girls and young women from Eastern Europe to South America with
promises of love and work. There, these women found themselves in cities such as
Rio de Janeiro, without families, friends, or language skills. In Bodies
and Souls, Isabel Vincent pieces together the biographies of three
Jewish women forced into prostitution in the New World and examines the history
of the Society for Truth, a mutual aid and burial society these outcasts founded
as an alternative to the community that rejected them. Formerly based in Canada,
Vincent now lives in Brazil. She is a newspaper reporter and author of
Hitler’s Silent Partners: Swiss Banks, Nazi Gold, And The Pursuit Of
did you first learn that there had been a trade in Jewish sex workers?
I read about it in a newspaper in London. A Brazilian journalist was
describing the cemetery of these prostitutes. I had spent years in Brazil as a
foreign correspondent and I hadn’t heard this story. I had heard bits and pieces
about the polacas, a reference to what I thought were just Polish
womenthat’s a direct translation. It’s actually not a very nice word. I
didn’t know at the time that it denoted “prostitute.” I was totally intrigued.
A few years later, I went to find the cemetery near Rio de Janeiro, in
Inhaúma. We went searching for this place, in the middle of nowhere, obviously
in a bad part of town, surrounded by shantytowns. There was a big Star of David
on the gate. It looked newly painted, but inside it was total disaster,
overgrown. A lot of the tombstones were broken. At night, drug traffickers use
the broken graves to hide weapons and cocaine. There were vultures flying on the
other side of the wall.
A lot of gravestones had sepia photographs of
these women. They looked so normal, like your grandmother. I asked the fellow
who took care of the cemetery, who these women were, and he kind of joked, “Oh,
they’re pimps, prostitutes and gigolos.” People used to come to visit them once
a year, but now they’re all forgotten.
Were you surprised by what you
I didn’t even know that there was any kind of sex
trafficking, period, to the Americas at that time, but that’s silly, I should
have known that that happened because of the way immigration worked. Single men
went over first, and there would have been a ready market for European women.
But, who brought them over, why did they come, did they know what they were
coming to do? I started going back to literature, fiction. People like Sholem
Aleichem had been writing about this. He has a great short story called “The
Man From Buenos Aires,” about a Jewish white slaver on a train in Eastern Europe
who talks about how rich he is and what a wonderful life he’s made in Argentina.
Bashevis Singer wrote Scum, about a slaver who goes back to Warsaw
after making his fortune in Argentina and Brazil, and goes looking for love, but
also for women to exploit.
How did these women come to form the
Society for Truth?
In 1916, they pooled their resources and bought a
plot of land. They had it officially designated as a cemetery. That was the
founding principle, because the women who were dying of yellow fever and of
venereal disease were being tossed aside in some city cemetery without a proper
religious ceremony. These women didn’t want to die like that. They organized
their burial society earlier than the Jewish community in Rio, and there was a
lot of animosity from the upstanding Jews of Rio, that these women would be able
to do it first.
Then it became more ambitious. The women wanted to be
able to advance each other money to send each other back to Poland or Romania or
Russia if they wanted to spend their last years there. They would pay for
hospital stays. I think it grew too ambitious, and when the women started dying
off in the 1960s and 1970s, the whole thing disappeared. There was nobody left
to support it.
These once penniless women had sufficient resources to
front money for passage to Europe?
They were very strict about
collecting dues every month, about the operation of the society. That became the
most important thing in their lives. You see it in all of the minutes. It’s
amazing. In 1942, they buy a building for cash in downtown Rio. Some of these
women went on to become quite serious madams who had more than one brothel and
several women, not necessarily Jewish, working for them.
Well, they were trying to seize control of their own
destiny. Most women were not able tomost women in South America were not
able to vote until much later. I don’t think they looked at it in political
terms. They just did it out of desperation and the need to surviveand the
need to survive spiritually, which I found very moving: that everything
else can go wrong and they can be working in a brothel, but they wanted to be
Jewish, and they wanted to hold on to some kind of dignity and faith. For them,
unfortunately, that meant death, when they felt they could return to what they
Did they go to synagogue?
No. They weren’t allowed
in. That’s why they formed their own synagogue in 1942. Of course, no rabbi
would preside, so they had only a cantor, whoever they could get to do it. In
the normal synagogues, people would spit at them. If they tried to go to the
Yiddish theater in Rio, massive fights would break out and police would have to
be called. They purchased tickets, but the respectable Jewish community wouldn’t
let them in. This happened also in Argentinain any city in Latin America
where these women were and where there was a sizable Jewish community,
confrontations at the theater were common.
What did the rest of the
world, or even the Jewish community at large, do about the trafficking?
By the 1920s you’ve got the Jewish Association for the Protection of
Girls and Women having huge conferences in London to discuss what to do, with
all of the Jewish leaders of Europe and South America. And they worried that, if
they raised the issue of white slavery, they’re going to attract the ire of the
anti-Semites, so a lot of the leaders are against doing anything about it. But a
lot of people did go out on a limb and help these women. By 1926, certainly,
they had volunteers posted at all ports of entry to South America and ports of
departure in Europe warning women to be careful.
Were young Jewish
women more vulnerable in Europe to pimps than girls from other communities?
The Jews did not have a monopoly, they were just one part of a large
traffic. I think all poor uneducated women were pretty vulnerable, no matter
what their religion or who they were. At that time, you’ve also got a huge trade
in Asian women, in French women. But the French writer, Albert
Londres, talked about the difference in the way that the Jewish pimps dealt
with the Jewish girls. They would go to the trouble of going within the family
and marrying the girls in these silent weddings. The girls would never have
civil or religious rights in any union like that. Some men ended up marrying
something like 30 women.
Did you come across any evidence that some
parents knew they were selling off their daughters to be prostitutes?
No. Never. Londres had a lot of anecdotes about how some parents did
know what they were doing and that they were making contracts with these
traffickers. But I didn’t come across anything like that. By the 1920s, the
perception was that if you didn’t see through these guys who were coming to the
shtetls, you were stupid and were going to have this horrible life in South
America. I talked to a group of Jewish women in Rio, at an old age home, and
they were saying, “Yeah, everybody knew these guys. And anybody who went with
them was just an idiot.”
Can you tell me a bit more what so
captivated you about this chapter of history?
First of all, I’m a
journalist. Secondly, I really feel for these women, I’m amazed at what they
did. If you see the cemetery and you stand there with the sun beating down, you
think, “Oh, my God, how did they end up here from Eastern Europe so long ago?”
It’s a sad story. But it’s also a powerful story, that they banded together and
created a cemetery so they could die with dignity. It transcends religion. It
becomes this universal quest for meaning and dignity, and dying with a clean
soul. I’m not very religious, but I was very moved by their story.
Sara Ivry last interviewed Tiffany
Image from Bodies and
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